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How-to's Accessories Reviews

Do I Really Need a Polarizer Filter?

Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell)

Keywords: polarizer, polarizing, filter, nature, photography, digitaldarrel

Here is why nature shooters use a circular polarizer filter. The image on the left side (of the image below) was made without polarization; the one on the right is polarized. See how polarization removes the reflections from the water and even the foliage, making the colors more saturated and the whole image more contrasty. If you want to shoot nature, use a circular polarizer for best results.


In the two pictures you will note that there is no direct sun anywhere. I shot these two images on an overcast day to lower contrast. Many people think that a polarizer does not work unless you have the sun in the sky. That is not true, as evidenced by my images. In fact, any time there is directional light -such as the overcast light shining down through the trees in this scene- a polarizer will work to remove reflections and saturate the colors.

One thing to be cautious about is to make sure that you are using a “circular polarizer” (abbreviations engraved on filter ring of CIR PL or CPL) and not an older linear polarizer. The older linear types can interfere with the autofocus system on a newer DSLR. Circular polarizers do not interfere with AF.

Also, be aware that a polarizer reduces the amount of light by from 1.5 to 2 stops because it allows only the transmission of light that is vibrating in one direction, meaning that extra exposure is required. Of course, your camera will compensate for the light loss and still make a good exposure. However, you may be limited to using a tripod when the light is dim due to the required slower shutter speeds.

Using a circular polarizer is a mainstay of nature photographers everywhere.
My pictures above show why. If you haven’t used one yet, now’s the time to try.

Keep on capturing time…

Editor note: The preferred brands of polarizing filters by advanced and professional Nikonians members are, in alphabetical order, B+W, Formatt Hitech, Heliopan, LEE, Nikon, Rodenstock, Schneider & Singh-Ray.


(21 Votes )

Originally written on November 21, 2016

Last updated on March 19, 2017


User on April 6, 2018

The lenstip tests of various models is worth a read...

User on August 6, 2017

I've seen the difference a CPL filter can make on sunny/hazy days using my F5 (even if I did overdo it...too dark once I developed the film, it was way too washed out without the filter). I didn't know there was an application on shady days too. Good to know and I will give this a try. One question. I have two CPL filters. A Nikon CP-11 that has no markings to indicate it's ND value, and an Ultimax Studio Series MC Digital HD Variable ND2-400. The Ultimax gets significantly darker than the Nikon. The Nikon appears to have just one level of darkness. Is there a rule of thumb, so to speak, about how much "dark" to use? Or is this a "try it and see" sort of thing? How do I know the ND value of the Nikon CPL?Thanks in advance.

Kelly McGrew (kmcgrew) on May 6, 2017

Great illustration of using a polarizer. There are two things I will add: (1) The digital darkroom will not and cannot replace a polarizing filter. Yes, you can use color and hue adjustments to darken the sky, but you can’t recover what isn’t there. So if you are looking to take a photo of fish in the water and there is reflection on the water you MUST use a polarizer. (2) Clyde Sweatt recommends buying a polarizing filter for your largest lens and using step-up rings to adapt it to lenses with smaller diameters. My suggestion is to consider a filter system, in particular the Lee Filter System. I have all three Lee Filter Systems: The Seven5 Micro Filter System for my Nikon 1 V2, the SW150 Filter System for my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 wide angle lens, and the 100mm Filter System for all other lenses.

Janet cook (jcjancook) on January 30, 2017

A polarizer filter ,is top of my wish list, thank you Darrell for sharing very helpful to a beginner like my self

Dianne Clark (Dianne340) on January 28, 2017

Darryl. Thank you. I found your article very informative and a wake up call because the Aussie summer is difficult for photography. A question please: photographing water birds is particularly difficult in summer glare. Would a polarizer filter help this and would it slow down focus on birds in flight? Dianne

Jim Watkins (James1usa) on January 18, 2017

Another use for a CP. I do a lot of portrait photography at the beach and local hi-desert mountains. The polarizer when used when the sun is highest in the sky, typically between 10AM and 2PM, will warm up skin tones and sand/rocks and help avoid the bleached look that can occur during the brightest part of the day. Your subjects skin tones will more closely match the early morning and late afternoon shots when the CP is not needed.

User on December 31, 2016

Thanks Darrell, As always, your images and explanations clarify and simplify the subject. This article has persuaded me to try a polarizer for the first time. Many thanks

Josiah Bacon (Josh1486) on November 30, 2016

It's never been an issue of whether I needed a polarizer,I want one to accomplish what I intend in the picture -- Better contrast and separation against a blue sky, more saturated colors, reduce or remove reflections. it's always been which one do I want. I use three: a B+W on my primes (they're all 52mm fronts, a 77mm Marumi (as good as any listed above) on the kit lens that came with the d810, and yes, I admit it, a pair of cheap Amazon filters (CPL and a clear glass) on the P900's lens (67mm) which can't seem to hold a filter for love or money (I can toss a couple more in my bag as spares). Since I often shoot against sea, glacier, geyser, and waterfall spray (sometimes all at the same time), industrial steam and other pollutants (usually accompanied by a rash), rain forest droppings (god knows what falls out of the trees), desert dust (a lot of silica), last but not least crud kicked up by road repair crews (they'll never finish building this town). I stack a glass or left over uv/haze filter over the CPL I'd say most of the image degradation comes from camera shake. I adapted the lens hood used with the Nikon film camera Polarizer (HN-12?) to fit the 52mm CPL; now I have one lens hood for all my primes. After everything said, I believe a good Polarizer is a darn good investment; one will get more use out it than many of the other filters.

Robert Kusztos (PhotoRoberto) on November 30, 2016

I use most of the time my Nikon CP II 77 mm polarizing filter for landscape photography to make colors more saturated, to remove shiny reflections from foliage and water, to darken the sky and to make waterfalls silky smooth due to longer exposure time.

Marianne Potts (C Marianne) on November 26, 2016

I have a polarising filter, so this is useful to know, thanks for writing this :-)

Clyde Sweatt (Clyde57) on November 24, 2016

A tip. Good quality polarizers are expensive. Buy the largest size you need and buy step up rings to fit your smaller lenses. For instance, if you have lenses with 77, 72 and 67mm filter threads, buy a 77mm polarizer and two step up rings to adapt the 77mm polarizer to the lenses with 72mm and 67mm threads. That way you can afford to buy the best quality polarizer, i.e. Kaessemann.

Peter Kane (Horizons14) on November 23, 2016

I visited Alaska recently and took a number of photographs of glaciers. The sky was partially overcast. Some were taken at ground level and others from the air. (a low flying seaplane) I was a little disappointed by the results and after seeing Darrell's excellent article I am sure a circular polarising filter would have improved the results

Peter Geran (gearsau) on November 22, 2016

I think I have every size polarizing filter manufactured by Nikon. Even the expensive " Drop-in " 39 mm and 52 mm CPL's for my old Nikon 500 mm f4 AF-I ( 39 mm ), and 52 mm for the Nikon 300 mm f2.8 AF-S. While I don't use them much, I would not be without them.

User on November 21, 2016

A nice little serendipity here too, Darrell as sitting beside me on my desk is your excellent book "Mastering the Nikon D7000". I purchased this as soon as I got my D7000 and it has been an indispensable aid. Thank you for that

User on November 21, 2016

I long ago replaced my UV filters with polarisers, Darrell and wouldn't be without them. They're not cheap but last a lifetime if properly cared for. I find that the latest offerings from Hoya do a fine job too and offer a 1 stop reduction which can be a plus. I imagine that anyone not using polarisers will be out looking for them after seeing your comparison images. An excellent article.

Ron Planche (RonPlanche) on November 21, 2016

When should you not use a polarizing filter in landscape photography? What happens if you like to merge several photos into a pano and the polarizer is on? Etc

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on November 21, 2016

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Excellent article Darrell. Brief and to the point, with a very effective illustration. While a polarizer can be used in a number of situations and for different visual effects you identified the essence of what the filter does. Reduce glare and increase saturation. I own a number of CPLs and aside from a basic, neutral-colored model there are warming polarizers, polarizers that filter out certain hues, and others that enhance color.

John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on November 21, 2016

Well said Darrell! I own 3 Nikon CPII polarizers: 52mm, 62mm, and 77mm. I use them for tele, mid, and even ultra-wide. I love the effects you can get by darkening the blue sky. I even like the dark-to-light blue transition effects you can get in ultra-wide on clear days. One other thing a polarizer can do (in some circumstances) that is worth mentioning...reduce the effects of haze in the air.